A minor revolution in modern theater dance occurs midway through the first act of "Tango Argentino," which opened Tuesday at the Pantages Theatre for a seven-week run.
After a series of impressively tough, improbably sleek and impossibly glamorous couples have danced their tangos, Virulazo and Elvira enter for their "Orgullo Criollo"--she a slinky spitfire with her skirt slit all the way up to Paraguay (familiar enough in this show), he remarkable for being the type of professional dancer we never see: a middle-aged fat man.
Even more remarkably, their duet is no character or comedy number based on physical mis-matching but a classic display of high-speed technical intricacy performed with drop-dead precision and the muscular heat that this made-in-Paris (but archetypally Argentine) revue is famous for.
Ordinary-looking people dancing extraordinarily well: That's one revelation "Tango Argentino" provides. With impeccable taste and an uncanny sense of pacing, the show not only summarizes a century of tango style in songs, dances and musical interludes, it also glories in performers who don't all need to be icons of youth, fitness and beauty because they are among the best in the world at something we only think we know.
Instead of swoony, backbend-to-the-floor cliches that have come to exist largely through parody, "Tango Argentino" emphasizes a kind of spectacularly complex legs-between-legs footwork that even folk-dance aficionados seldom encounter in the theater.
There are traveling steps with unexpected, cantilevered hesitations built in, and passages in which the woman madly swivels in the man's arms while he repeatedly kicks between her feet. He may link ankles with her and swing both their legs out pendulum-style. She may encircle his thigh with her own leg or jump up onto his hip. Whatever, it's exciting, unpredictable, spontaneous.
The mood that the eight couples create will be alternately playful (Mayoral and Elsa Maria) and nostalgic (Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs), breathlessly vivacious (the Dinzels), romantically dreamy (Nelida and Nelson) and more. In the dance-drama "Milonguita," involving nearly all the dancers (and featuring Naanim Timoyko), it even will turn grimly fatalistic. But it's all tango.
American dance audiences are long accustomed to seeing suites that explore the expressive range of a specific social dance (Eliot Feld's "Mazurka," for example) or that depict a dance's original milieu (George Balanchine's "Vienna Waltzes").
But "Tango Argentino" does all that and also lets us watch the surviving inheritors of the authentic, still-evolving tango culture demonstrate their sensational mastery. This, then, is a folk revue--one that defines in absolute terms the intense, earthy sensuality of an idiom born in the brothels of Buenos Aires.
Along the way, for instance, the show restores female legs to their notoriety as private parts--to be glimpsed in sudden, teasing flashes (instead of the immediate full-disclosure of ballet and modern dance) as part of the interplay between concealment and exposure, submission and resistance that tango duets develop.
Where ballet turnout virtually destroys the distinction between outer and inner surfaces of the legs, the tango vocabulary exploits the provocative difference between going around the former and through the latter. Men usually define these niceties but a series of sizzling, slowly rising rondes de jambes performed by Maria Nieves between Juan Carlos Copes' feet demonstrates definitively that women are not excluded.
Like the dances in "Tango Argentino," the songs and musical interludes are highly distinctive and emotional, whether you are hearing a passionate tango-credo sung by Alba Solis (she of the copper spit curls and neo-Kabuki maquillage) or the mournful bleat of the accordion-like bandoneon (lead instrument of the vibrant, virtuosic ensemble, the Sexteto Mayor).
The revue's directors (Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli) have designed a fluid, atmospheric staging scheme that makes the show seem all highlights. Only occasionally (as in the pantomime linkages of "Milonguita" or the choreographic unisons of the first-act finale) does their folk material seem in any way manipulated or distorted.
Thus, "Tango Argentino" functions as a brilliantly realized cultural reclamation project, salvaging a popular art form that is currently in decline at home and making the world appreciate it in all its hot, varied splendor.